For the first time, a work of fiction has left me completely speechless. Speechless, because this was a story more real, raw and relevant than what real life ever seems to be.
While reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues and encouraging people to speak up is incredibly important and a noble crusade, such an effort is being made in the world of TV, books and movies that it is becoming clichéd.
Mental health issues and suicide have become tropes used in fiction to immediately brand the story as relevant, mature and meaningful. Subsequently, these serious issues are often exploited, glorified or both. This has had the strange effect on the current generation of causing them to develop a sick obsession with being broken.
Not only is this an insult to those who are struggling with serious issues but also isolates and guilt-trips those who aren’t.
It’s scary that it is actually on trend to be a bit ‘messed up’. But of course, this trend doesn’t extend to being really messed up, because then that gets a little too real.
This is where 13 Reasons Why comes in. For the first few episodes, it seems as though the show will feed into this trend. It is almost guilty of romanticizing Hannah Baker’s suicide through the power she continues to hold over those she leaves behind, in the form of thirteen cassette tapes. However, as the show progresses it becomes evident that its intent is to be brutally honest in its depiction of Hannah’s deterioration and the events that contribute to it.
To allow the viewer to intimately understand her choice, the show doesn’t shy away from anything commonly considered visually and/or conceptually too confronting for the screen.
Life isn’t censored, it doesn’t awkwardly side step around the things we would rather not face as many works of fiction do. That’s what makes 13 Reasons Why’s raw and at times uncomfortable portrayal of themes such as teen suicide, sexual assault and bullying oddly refreshing in the most horrible and shocking of ways.
The show’s authenticity in its representation of these heavy issues is aided by a diverse ensemble of complex and flawed characters, who thankfully avoid two-dimensional teenage archetypes. The ambiguity surrounding the morality of these characters blurs the often all too straightforward dichotomy of victim vs bully. This appropriately avoids oversimplifying the concept and brings to light the complexities of why someone may be driven to end their own life. As unsettling as it may be to watch, it is this commitment to realism that makes 13 Reasons Why essential viewing.
Some argue that the show doesn’t deal with Hannah’s battle with mental health issues prior to her suicide explicitly enough, but this is the exact point the show is making. Sometimes the warning signs aren’t there, a battle with depression can often be a completely internal struggle with no outwardly occurring symptoms. It also highlights the fact that every experience with mental health issues is unique, therefore invalidating the argument that the show doesn’t depict mental health issues ‘accurately’.
Others criticize the show for its “be kind, you could save a life” message, because ultimately other people are not responsible for your mental health and suicide is an individual choice that no one but yourself can save you from. While this may be true, it would be ignorant to say that the actions of others cannot contribute heavily to someone’s mental state, and therefore influencing their decision to take their own life. Sure, kindness may not save a life if someone has already decided to take their own. But if it makes them think twice about it even temporarily, it is beyond worth it.